Shorts, Axles, Rodes, and Ho!

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Mixed Metaphor?

The other day, I was getting a bit excited about a situation that was frustrating to me. A friend said, “Don’t get your shorts wrapped around the axle over this.” I have heard the phrase “getting wrapped around the axle’ many times before. In context, it meant getting frustrated to the point of being stopped. Moreover, I had heard the phrase “Don’t get your shorts in a bunch” before as well. This saying meant don’t get yourself upset and uncomfortable because of the situation. I don’t know about you, but I get upset when my shorts get bunched up. It’s very uncomfortable! (I know, too much information.)


It Works

Even if it’s a mixed metaphor, I like it! What it means to me is that not only am I uncomfortable (my shorts are wrapped around the axle), but I’m also frustrated and stopped. When something gets wrapped around the axle of a car or other machine, it impedes progress.

So, I’ve decided that’s a good idiom: “Dave has his shorts wrapped around the axle on this thing.” Ha! Uncomfortable, and, progress is slowed. I can extend this metaphor even more — “I got my shorts wrapped around the axle over this invoicing issue. Not only that, I found the axle wasn’t even attached to a wheel of progress. Instead, it was attached to a car wheel blowing donuts in the parking lot of trivia.” Now that’s a metaphor!


Here’s another idiom I like. Dave has a “long rode to ho!” I know, I know, you’ve seen that written as “a long row to hoe.” However, that last is for you landlubbers. I prefer the nautical version.

As a sailor, I got to understand what an anchor rode is. It is a long length of chain or heavy rope or a combination of both, attached to the ship’s anchor. On our boat, it was a long, strong rope with a long length of heavy chain attached to the anchor. Once that rope was attached to the anchor it was called a rode. More precisely, the anchor rode.

Heave — Ho!

Then there’s the term from the old days when the square-riggers had to weigh anchor (that is, lift the anchor back onto the ship). Several sailors would line up along the anchor rode. The leader would yell “Heave!” and the sailors would all reach forward along the rode. Then, as they gripped the rode, they would yell, “Ho!” so that they would all pull together. That’s where the term “heave-ho” originated.

In stormy seas, a ship must let out lots of anchor rode to secure the ship. When it’s time to weigh anchor and get underway, there is a “long rode to ho.”


I can also picture a farmer standing at the end of his field, looking down a long row of vegetable plants that need weeding, or hoeing. He takes a deep breath, sighs, and exclaims, “That’s a long row to hoe.”

That idiom works for me too. However, what does all this have to do with leadership?


For me, it’s a chance to be curious. Where did that saying come from? What does it mean? Can I use it to spark a conversation that will lead to other discoveries about communication? If I use that phrase, will the meaning be understood by my audience?

Curiosity is a hallmark of excellent leaders. They seem to be curious about everything — their employees, their company’s procedures, their customers and their customer’s customer, technology trends, and more. Excellent leaders are life-long learners. And they learn by being curious. Next time you hear an idiom of one kind or another, stay curious. Where did that come from? What did it mean originally? Can I use it to advantage today?